Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Steal this idea: Greetings from the opposite of America!!!

Reading commentary Americans write about how things work in France is incredibly frustrating. It tends to be a random mix of stuff that's right with stuff that makes me go "What the...? Where did that come from?"

Then one day it finally dawned on me where it's coming from. Most of the time when North Americans write about France they're not actually writing about France at all -- they're writing about America.

Whenever an American wants to write an essay describing the American way of doing something, it's important to set it off with a contrasting example of a first world country where things are completely the opposite of the way things are in the U.S. That country is France. Always. Whether things really are done differently in the real-life country of France is quite irrelevant. There are two ways of doing things, the American way, and the opposite of the American way, and to put a human face on "the opposite of the American way" we like to add a beret and horizontally-striped shirt and call it "France."

And so with that background I want to talk about an amusing article that was sent to me by Æsahættr: Hillary equals France.

I don't want to be too critical of this article since it's obviously a humor piece (and one that's nice to the French for a change...), but it fits the standard model pretty well: When comparing the French to the Americans, the author (Bill Maher) got some stuff right and some stuff wrong, but the one point where he was truly right on the money was a point about Americans.

Each culture has its own set of shared assumptions, and one of the most deeply held assumptions by the American people is that the American way is the best way; that all great ideas, advances, and innovations come from America, and the rest of the world is watching with envy and scrambling to copy "the American way" of doing just about anything.

You may be saying "Come on, Chanson!! The people of every country think their own way of doing things is best!!!" And I will respond with all sincerity: Not like the Americans do. The other half of you are probably saying "The reason Americans think that is because it's true!!!" And I'll grant that there's more than just a grain of truth to it -- there's a boulder of truth to it. That's probably why this belief is so popular. ;^)

Nonetheless, there are many cases where this unquestionable article of faith is wrong. And in those cases, it's a big stumbling boulder in terms of solving problems and improving things in the U.S.

Talking to the average European-on-the-street, as horrified as they are by Bush, there's still a strong sense that America leads the way -- largely in technology, but in other areas as well -- so there's no shame in watching closely and adopting practices seem to be working on the other side of the pond. (Case in point: Sarkozy -- who just won the French presidential election by a wide margin -- is perceived as the "Americophile" who will be leading France in a more American direction.) On the American side of the pond, by contrast, there's a perception of Europe as the "failed system" -- the standard example of how not to do anything.

Now let's look at this in purely mathematical terms: even if it's true that more innovation comes from America, who has the advantage? The people who use your ideas only? Or the people who use your ideas and their own as well? The American founding fathers weren't above having a two-way exchange of good ideas with other countries (notably France, as pointed out in the article), and America is all the better off for it. So why scrap this fine tradition?

Bill Maher gives an excellent modern example: Health care. Why is U.S. health care in the state it's currently in? Why, it's because American health care is the best in the world!!! And la-la-la I'm putting my fingers in my ears and not listening to you if you say anything different!!!

But seriously, (from a snail's eye view at least) the health care system here in France is excellent. As someone who grew up on U.S. healthcare, I am constantly impressed by the quality and comprehensiveness of the French healthcare system. I talked about the contrast a little bit in my post about those wacky health insurance companies!!! Just to take three day-to-day quality of life issues that are important to me -- healthcare, transportation, and public education -- all three are far superior in Europe. Now if you're about to remind me of the taxes, I'll just put it in crass capitalistic terms: sometimes you pay more for something that's better.

I've been hesitant to talk about the above in lo these many years of blogging because I don't want to alienate my American audience (or unduly worry them with the fear that those evil European socialists gotten to me and melted my brain). If you disagree with me, that's fine -- I welcome dissent here, and I don't claim to be an expert on economics. But I'm not speaking as a knee-jerk "France is always best" cheerleader -- I'm as willing and happy to criticize French folly as I am to criticize anyone else's (recall grammar police among others).

Regarding some of the other points made in the article:

The French do indeed like to swap gossip about their leaders' personal lives. Of course I heard about the fact that Royal never actually married the father of her children and I heard the rumor about Sarkozy's marriage being on the rocks. My husband even told me he'd read that Sarkozy's wife didn't bother to vote in the election, so notably she didn't vote for her husband. Now, one reason Royal's non-marriage was a non-issue was the fact that it seems like half of France is in the same boat. Not just my generation and younger either -- it looks like whether you've legally married your S.O./co-parent has been viewed as something of a minor technicality for some time.

Mahler is right, however, that politicians' personal lives don't show up as serious election issues. I talked a little about the relationship of the French with political sex lives in my post about Hillary Clinton. I think part of it is the fact that more than a hundred years ago there was a French president who died while receiving a B.J. from his mistress, and French politicians since then...? Well, they've had a hard time topping that one.

Another point for Americans to be aware of is that French history doesn't start right around the time of the French Revolution and cover France exclusively as a republic. From what I understand, it starts with "Our ancestors, the Gauls..." and runs through quite a bit of monarchy before that whole enlightenment-and-democracy thing. And since nobody's going to tell the king that it's not okay for him to maintain a mistress or two, it turns out that "the king's mistress" is a frequent stock character in the French history books. Obviously people will have somewhat different expectations for democratically-elected leaders, but still I think this sort of thing affects the public expectations about how leaders are going to behave.

Regarding the claim that "there is no Pierre six-pack" -- that's a funny line but... The author seems to be claiming that in France everybody's an intellectual and there's no political pandering or voting on the basis of emotional/symbolic issues. That's an interesting theory, but let's try to stay here on the planet Earth with us please...

That said, what I saw and read of the presidential debate here in France seemed fairly serious: The main issues covered were apparently economic theory and energy policy, and in particular how reliant France is (and should or shouldn't be) on nuclear power. I didn't see any discussion of how the candidates measured up in terms of pronouncing the word "nuclear" so I suppose they both did okay on that point. Y'know, for French people.

The last point I'd like to mention -- touched on briefly in the article -- is immigration. I'd like to devote a separate post to immigration and race issues in France -- how they are similar to related issues in the U.S., and how they're different. I've avoided the subject up until now because it's even touchier than anything I've spoken of in this post, and unfortunately it's a subject whose analysis suffers from more wrong-headed "France is the opposite of America" rhetoric than any other issue I've seen. Plus I'm not convinced that my readers are actually interested in this issue, so I hate to get myself mired in controversy for nothing. But I'll write up my ideas on the subject if you guys are interested.

Until then, this is Pierre six-pack signing off!!! :D


-M said...

Small world, I was looking at a old blog I had called God Debate in which I was posting an email debate I was having with a Christian friend who would not stop spaming me. I saw a comment from CI Hanson. I recognized the name and realized we have much in common if we keep running into each other. So why don't you get yourself over to and register. Your contribution would be appreciated.

Rebecca said...

I think the only thing I may disagree on (besides the FACT that the American way is THE ONLY way - because DUH!) is that Americans think of Europe as a failed system. I've always had the impression that Americans think of Europe as smarter and more forward-thinking. Well, western Europe. In general.

Anonymous said...

I know for a fact that the US (americans) owe a great deal to the French - for many reasons. I don't know why the French are often noted as the opposite of Americans. I actually have observed this with other countries (former Soviet Union, Canada, etc.).

I think it goes back to the whole self/other dynamic (which I don't completely understand). Almost everything is the other - mysterious, difficult to understand and comprehend. The self is defined as the "not other" - instead of really having a definition of what someone is FOR. They are just the not - whatever (non artist, socialist/non socialist).

Personally, I think we could learn a great deal from the French and the French system - health care, social security - even debating issues in the elections instead of personal lives. Taking the best ideas while still keeping the things we do well.

Finally, I certainly hope this isn't the case, but many of my French textbooks in junior high and high school were sadly lacking. You would think that all French people work at the boulangerie (bread bakery).

Instead of discussing the wealth of different fields, philosphies of the French - we focused on strange French customs (the creche)- which may or may not still be part of the culture.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey M!!!

Well, I've stopped by Secular Earth a few times to have a look around, so maybe I'll reigster and post a bit. I'm really stretched beyond my limit on blogging alone, so I can't promise to become a serious regular on a forum... ;^)

Hey Rebecca!!!

That's true, and I should have mentioned that. There's one set of people for whom "Europe's doing it that way" is a sufficient reason not to do it that way, yet there's another camp of Americans who are biased in Europe's favor.

Hey Aerin!!!

This whole self vs. other dynamic is exactly what I'm trying to explore. Just in terms of my own bias, I strongly identify with both America and France as "self" (considering my family connection) so it's frustrating for me when one sees the other as incomprehensibly alien. Then there's the question of subcultures one sees as alien such as immigrants and minorities in one's own culture. One of my big goals in blogging is to try to increase understanding among different communities, and I hope I'll have some success....

AnnM said...

The creche is a strange French custom? Hmm, in my experience it is a government-sponsored infant & toddler childcare center that substantially improved the quality of life of women I knew, both stay-at-home and working mothers.

But everyone knows I'm half-way to a socialist myself after my time in France.

I agree. Americans would benefit if more of them tried to follow the maxim, "If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things." Even if it comes from France.

And I would love to hear more about immigration. The French seemed to feel--at least until recently--somewhat superior to Americans with respect to racism. But from circa Napoleon to maybe 20 years ago, the French were incredibly homogenous culturally. And it's easy to not be racist when you are all the same culture.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Sam-I-Am!!!

Yeah, when I was talking about public education, I was kind of mentally including the early-childhood care. In our case, we ended up hiring a private nanny until our youngest turned three and could attend school. To hire a nanny, we got a huge tax credit (otherwise we wouldn't have been able to afford to do it -- we were able to subtract essentially half the nanny's salary from what we owed in taxes), but if we hadn't gone that route, there are creches and also "Nounous" -- which I think are people who take care of just a few small children in their homes.

Regarding immigration, you're on the trail of some of the points I was planning to talk about. If we grant that France has been fairly culturally homogeneous since around the time of Napoleon, one might ask how it got that way. It would appear that some other European nations didn't impose the central culture on the provinces to quite the same degree as France did. I would argue that France has a tradition of not only assimilating individual immigrants but also of subsuming whole subcultures and mentally filing them as distinct from the dominant culture yet still a component of French culture.

This is of course an oversimplification, but a little better than the wrong analysis I alluded to at the end of my post above, namely: "the reason there are hostilities between the native French and the North African immigrants is because being French is to be part of the French race; America has no such problem with any group of immigrants because America has a 'melting pot' tradition that France doesn't have." Obviously your own knowledge of the subject (as an economist and as someone who has lived in France) is more extensive and nuanced, so you'll probably have comments, clarifications, and corrections to add when I discuss this subject. :D

Anonymous said...

Sam -i-am and chanson - this is exactly what I'm talking about.

The "creche" I learned about in my high school french class was not some sort of daycare - but the statues in the nativity put out each Christmas. (I'm serious).
creche nativity scene

I guess talking in a public high school about some sort of tax break for parents or government sponsored day care is way too liberal! Let's talk about French nativity traditions instead!

Anonymous said...

I have dreams at night that someday public education in the US will be as good as it is in Europe.

But it'll never happen- this is a bit of a sidetrack, but Amercians as a culture don't actually value education very highly. School is important, but it's a means to an end.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Aerin!!!

That's so funny -- when I read Sam-I-Am's comment about the "creche," the first thing that popped into my head was the nativity scene, and it took me a minute to re-orient myself and figure out what she was talking about in terms of day care. It's true, the two are both strange French customs and are named with the same word. ;^)

Hey Kullervo!!!

You've just touched on a couple of points that surely warrant three or four whole separate posts. ;^)

Seeing education as a "means to an end" (as opposed to valuing curiosity and learning for its own sake) is one of the facets I've seen specifically in Mormon culture, which is hugely success-oriented. That's the main reason IMHO Mormons overall tend to be at once highly-educated and yet anti-intellectual.

As far as American public education is concerned -- again this is a post unto itself -- but I think it has been harmed by having education run on the local community level instead of on the national or even state level. The extreme disparity between rich schools and poor schools leads people ot self-segregate and to mistrust the public schools' ability to provide a good education. The advantage you get from running schools on the local level is greater freedom of choice. But then if what you want is choice and you don't trust the government, the logical strategy is to push in the direction of privitization and advantages for private schools. This exacerbates the problem of disparity and leads the interested parties (the parents with resources) to invest their time, efforts, and money into private education. The whole thing is a vicious circle that is incredibly difficult to break out of...

Here in France the schools are run 100% on the national level in terms of curriculum, placement of teachers, and allocation of resources. It's true that means that an individual community has exactly zero leeway to try out a new program on its own. Yet weirdly it can increase ordinary people's options in a sense. In my case, I have the very real option of sending my kids to an racially/culturally-integrated "inner-city" public school and still expect that they're getting a top-notch education. This is one of the points I'd also like to discuss (I'm again oversimplifying here...) in my post about race.

Cyn Bagley said...


Having lived in Germany for five years, I have to be against all things FRENCH ;-) except for the wines.. delightful.

For a real French story, a friend of mine went over the border (Germany to France) to spend some time in Paris. They stopped at one of the smaller towns for spargel. When they went back to their rental car, they had been burgularized. Every blessed thing that they had in the car was gone.

Instead of reporting the robbery, they picked up a few toiletries from the mud and went to Paris. Bought clothes. And had a great time.


Anonymous said...

On the subject of healthcare, I think the most common "opposite" comparison I hear is that in France (or Canada or Sweden ... etc) there are lines for everything -- strangely similar to the bread lines we always heard about in Russia. And the poor quality of service. And the denial of service for "optional" life-saving care. And folks going underground or traveling to the US to get "the best care money can buy" ... blah, blah, blah.

It seems like there's always someone to jump-in and confirm such claims, having "lived" under the nightmare of social medicine. So I'm pleased to hear from an expat who has lived under both a much more positive report and one balanced by the reminder of just what a nightmare the health insurance (and I would add the managed healthcare industry) can be in the US.

I'm going away from this with confirmation of my suspicion that in the US that so-called world-class healthcare is primarily a service for the relatively wealthy, secondarily a benefit for the fully employed middleclass, and finally inaccessible to all the rest.

So the way I see it, we in the US trade universal care as a social program for elite care as a profit center. And I think this is America in a nutshell. God bless her.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Cynthia!!!

That's nice they were able to have a fun time despite being robbed. My husband once had his wallet stolen when we were on vacation, and it put kind of a damper on things as we had to waste vavation time cancelling credit cards, etc.

Hey Mel!!!

Lines? For healthcare??? So instead of making an appointment with the doctor, everybody just lines up at the door of the doctor's office and hopes to get a turn? What an absurd idea! The rumor-authors really ought to have thought that one through a little bit... ;^)

Seriously, though, there's no problem getting an appointment with a doctor of your choice (generalist or specialist), or having a doctor come make a house call if there's an emergency after hours or on Sunday. The quality of care has been consistently good. I have two little kids who have regular check-ups and occasional boo-boos so I know what I'm talking about. ;^) I haven't heard anything about lifesaving procedures being considered optional, and if that rumor comes in the same pack with those other ones, I wouldn't put much stock in it...

Cyn Bagley said...

When I was first diagnosed with Vasculitis disease, I was in a German teaching hospital. The care was great and they saved my life.

I can't say about France, but Germany has very good health-care... in my humble opinion.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Cynthia!!!

Wow, that's good that they were able to help you!!!

Anonymous said...

I still live in Germany and can say the healthcare here is comparatively good. That is despite the fact that the Germans keep claiming the system is about to collapse etc. I suspect the English NHS is in about the same boat.

I also had a French S/O for 12 years and have spend many vacations in France and weekends in Paris. One big difference between France and Germany is paranoia. The French I have met are very nervious about crime. Germans aren't as uptight. Just don't let your house or car start looking run down. Then you'll hear something. ;-)

I spend a lot of time doing America/German comparisons because I think they are important for Americans to read.

Most Americans seem to think that a murder rate 5 times the average for Europe is normal. I just posted a comment to another blog outlining the prison populations: America-2.2; China-1.5 and everyone else combined-5.6 million. Putting things in that kind of perspective tends to shake American feelings of superiority.

Sometimes it's just not good to be number one.

Then again I'm not too worried about alienating my American readership because if they aren't alienated yet, they probably never will be. That and the fact that I really don't have a readership. ;-)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Ben!!!

I think the comparisons are important too, so that people can see a range of possibilities and how they work in real life. I'm a little wary, though, because I don't want to give people the misimpression that I think France doesn't have any serious problems or that I'm just speaking from some sort of pro-Europe bias. Analyzing the similarities and differences between different societies (and how they got that way) is fun and useful, but extremely difficult...